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Tipping Point

Industry giants start the EV revolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2010

to be capable of demand response, charging off-peak, detecting price signals and communicating vehicle information,” says Duvall. “There are near-term objectives but there’s a long-term vision that the auto industry and the utility industry have to really work together to support.”

There’s some debate on whether the plug or the car itself is the communication lynchpin. Communicating directly with the car requires utilities to enter a whole new type of customer interface. Making the EVSE the hub requires communications with smart meters, home-area networks and other charging stations.

“Frankly, in the long term it’ll probably be a little bit of both,” Rowand says. “By definition the car will be smart. The Chevy Volt out of the gate will be smarter than any appliance in the house today. The question is whether it’s easier to use a smart plug to achieve the utility goals.”

Networking through the EVSE makes a lot of sense to utilities. It’s just one more step in the smart grid already envisioned. In the short term, most utilities see the primary value of EVs in the context of managing charge. Just being able to control when and how quickly cars are charged will allow utilities to shape the transportation load. But keeping tabs on vehicles in real time would offer more sophisticated data to better predict load requirements. For example, the utility could know that an EV 100 miles from home and low on juice soon would have to plug in somewhere for a fast charge.

Automakers have been communicating with vehicles for years—GM’s OnStar being the best-known system. Mike Tinskey, manager of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford, says that rather than communicating directly with vehicles, utilities could piggyback off the carmaker’s wireless stream.

“We believe a better way to do this is a bridging action, to have our servers talk to the utility servers,” he says. “This really simplifies a complex or a fragmented market for us.”

Ford, which has been in a technology partnership with Microsoft for several years, envisions using the Hohm platform to bridge the gap between utilities and EVs.

“Microsoft could actually talk to a utility that has no smart meters,” Tinskey says. “It knows through that linkage that a vehicle in a given area shouldn’t even try to talk to a smart meter because it doesn’t exist. But even more importantly, it would inform the driver of a tiered rate structure for that area. If you go to Northern California, where PG&E has deployed a tremendous amount of smart meters, and is considering an electric vehicle rate and other rate structures that may change hourly, then the driver needs to have that linkage as well, server to server.”

In a sense, the carmaker becomes a service provider to the utility, tracking the EV’s location and status. Ford has no plans of charging for such services.

“We both need something out of the relationship,” Tinskey says. “They provide us with all of their rate information and the feeds, and in turn we provide them with information about the electric vehicle and its charge